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The high cost of simplicty, angry Quakers, and the fallacy of neutral money

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The Friends Seminary at 222 East 16th Street in Manhattan

Every once in a while I turn on my adult brain and consider the future. This hypothetical future often involves wondering where I would send my kid to school if I decide to buy a kid from the kid store. Naturally, I’ve looked into Quaker schools as a way of circumventing criminally underfunded and scapegoated public “schools.” But then I saw the cost! Bummer.

The NY Times is reporting that a group of Quakers are making a fuss about the fact that the Friends Seminary in the Gramercy section of Manhattan costs nearly $33,000 a year. George Fox must be rolling in his barely-marked grave!

Apparently, there are a number of Quakers rolling as well. Concerned that the Friends Seminary has become a “rich kids school” promoting “unfriendliness,” some Quakers are calling for a separation between the Friends meeting and from the school itself.

Of course, there are apologists claiming that living the cushy life somehow corresponds with living the simple life. Irene McHenry, executive director of the Friends Council on Education erects the quintessential straw man argument to derail the debate stating that “simplicity is about how we live. It doesn’t say whether we can have indoor plumbing or not.” I suppose it doesn’t, but doesn’t it seem slightly disingenuous to promote simplicity and openness while at the same time making children’s education a privilege and not a right?

These days, spiritual understandings of “simple living” go to great lengths to evade discussions of finance, thus perpetuating an environment where “living simply” requires “spending amply.” It is this environment that makes buying local seasonal foods cost twice as much as buying foods from overseas.

But, this conundrum is part of a greater social condition.

One of the many scourges of contemporary North American spirituality, and especially of anything claiming to be “green,” is what I call the “cake and eat it too” syndrome. While a person could easily make the argument that having a Quaker school in Manhattan requires an inflated tuition, the obvious retort is rarely stated. If having a Quaker school in Manhattan compromises the tenets of your tradition, don’t have a Quaker school in Manhattan. No one is forcing you to have a Quaker school in Manhattan, the same way no one is forcing yoga studios to rent space in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and thus having to charge inordinate amounts of money to take an hour-long “flow” class.

But this is where the American materialist mindset runs rampant, inventing traditional ethics that were never there to begin with. So while, yes, being a Quaker (or yogi) does not mean you most forgo running water, it does mean that participating whole hog in a hyper-capitalist money-based economy, will, like it always does, compromise, if not radically alter, the very tradition you wish to promote.

And why would that be the case? Because money is not a neutral system. And why is money not a neutral system? Because money, as we use it, is entirely symbolic, and thus requires meaning to be placed on it in order to sustain its very existence. That is to say, if we didn’t believe money had worth, it wouldn’t! Unlike, say, a cash crop—an ear of corn, if you will—money necessitates a belief in its worth in order to make it have worth. An ear of corn has a direct correlation to your biology, thus not needing any more meaning than its use-value.

So, while it’d be very nice if money were simply a means to an end—a neutral system of exchange—it isn’t. Money-based economies are nothing like gift economies and certainly nothing like an economy based on mutual aid.

As it stands, the debate between the Friends meeting and the Friends Seminary is ongoing. Quakers, like any good anarchists might, require consensus when making decisions. So far, despite many a moment of silence, a consensus has yet to be had.

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For further reading into what a gift economy is and how it used to be practiced, check out the wiki page on the potlatch.

To read about how gift economies were actually outlawed by the State, read this section.

Nothing is neutral.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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